We used to take the fish we'd catch out of this dirty river that runs
through this dirty river town and we used to cut off those still
glistening with silver scaled heads and we used to nail them, those
heads, to the creosoted pole out back behind our yard. We'd hammer
nails into those cold water eyed heads and make for ourselves what
my brother and me used to call our back yard fishing pole. We did
not stop fishing for and catching and nailing those fish heads into
wood until the day our father came home from work and told us we
were leaving. When our father told us we were leaving, he meant
it, we were leaving for good: our dirty river, our dirty town. We
did not want to leave, my brother and me. We did not want to leave
behind the town or the river or the fish headed telephone post the
two of us brothers turned into a back of the yard fishing pole out
back behind the wood tool shed where our father kept his hammers
and his saws and his cigar boxes full of rusty, bent back nails
and his nuts and bolts and screws and those bottles half filled
At night, from our bedroom window,
my brother and me could look outside and see those fishes's marbly
looking eyes looking back all walleyed out from the sides of their
chopped off heads. The biggest of the big lipped fish looked like
they might leap out and bite the hand left dangling over the side
of a boat. We gave each of the fish heads each a name. In the end
there were exactly a hundred and fifty fish heads named, each with
its own name. Not one was called Jimmy or John.
Jimmy and John was my brother's and
my real name. We called each other Brother.
Our father called us brothers Son.
When our father hollered out Son, the both of us brothers would
turn back our heads. We both knew, we were crossing this river together.
Our mother called us both her dirty
little boys. We boys were made, our mother liked to say, in the
spitting image of our father. We did not like it much when our mother
told us brothers to wash the mud from off of our boots.
We liked mud and those dirty river
smells that smelled of fishing and worms. We did not like it when
our mother made us wash our hands to rid ourselves of those fishy
river smells. We liked the way the fish's silver fish scales stuck
to and glittered sparkly in our hands. At night, we liked to hold
our hands up to the moonlight shining into our bedroom window. It
looked like our hands had been dipped in stars.
But our mother and our father both
were sick and tired of living in a town with a dirty river running
through it and with river winds that always smelled of fish. Our
mother said she wanted to go somewhere, anywhere is the word she
used, so long as anywhere was west of here. West where? was what
our father wanted to know. And what our mother said was West of
all this muddy water. Somewhere, our mother said, where there's
not so much mud and rusted steel. There's a bigger sky, our mother
wanted us to know. There's a sky, our mother told us. There's a
sky not stunted by smokestacks and smoke.
We couldn't picture a sky bigger
than the sky outside our back yard. We did not want to imagine a
town without a dirty river running through it where we could run
down to it to fish. Us brothers, we did not want to run or be moved
away from all this smoke and water and mud.
We didn't know what we were going
to do, or how we were going to stay, until we looked outside and
saw our fish. The fish heads were looking back at us, open eyed,
open mouthed, and it was like they were singing to us brothers.
We climbed outside through our bedroom's window. Only the moon and
stars were watching us as we walked out to our father's tool shed
and dug out his hammers and a box of rusty, bent back nails. We
each of us grabbed a hand full of nails and a hammer in each of
our hands and walked over to our fish headed fishing pole. Brother,
I said to Brother, you can go first.
Give me your hand, I told him. Hold
your hand up against this wood.
Brother did like I told.
We were brothers. We were each other's
voice inside our own heads.
This might sting, I warned, and then
I raised back that hammer and I drove that rusty nail right through
Brother didn't even wince, or flinch
with his body, or make with his mouth a sound of a brother crying
Good, Brother, I said.
I was hammering in another nail into
Brother's other hand when our father stepped out into the yard.
Son, our father called out.
Us, our father's sons, turned back
our heads toward the sound of our father.
We waited to hear what it was our
father was going to say to us next.
It was a long few seconds. The sky
above the river where the steel mill stood like some sort of a shipwreck
was dark and quiet. Somewhere, I was sure, the sun was shining.
You boys remember to clean up before
you come back in, our father said.
Our father turned back his back.
Us brothers turned to face each other.
I raised back the hammer.
I lined up that rusted nail.
We come home
one day after being gone all day long fishing for fish in the river only
to find standing inside of our house people other than us. There is a
mother other than our mother, there is a father other than our father-there
are two boys in our house who are brothers other than us. Our mother and
our father both turn their faces to face the sounds us brothers are making
when we come boots bursting into our house, in through the back door,
and what they say, our mother and our father, not to us but to this other
family other than us is, these are our two boys. Who are they? is what
us brothers say to what we see standing inside our house. This other family,
this other mother and this other father and these two brothers other than
us, they look almost too much like us to be us; it could be us looking
into some sort of a mirror. But they are not us, and we are not them,
and what our father says to us, to our question, who are they? is, he
says to us, his sons, that this is the family that might be moving into
this house. This is our house, Brother points this out. There's not room
enough for all of us inside of this house. That's true, our mother says
to this, and for the first time in a long time, she is actually smiling.
Which is why, our mother tells us, if Mr. and Mrs. Haskins decide that
they want to buy our house from us, then we'll have to find some other
house for us to live in. We like this house, us brothers say to this.
Let them find some other house to live in. Maybe this is a bad time, the
other mother says to our mother. The other father says to our father that
maybe it would be better if they came back another time. Our mother shakes
her head. Our father nods his and says yes, that he'll call them later.
When our father says this, our mother shoots our father this look across
the space that is between them. It's a look that could, with just one
look, turn a muddy river into dirt and ice. Boys, our mother says to us,
looking this look down to us, what do you say you take the Haskins' boys
outside to look at your fish. Us brothers stand across from and we stare
into the eyes of those boys who are brothers not to us. All four of us
brothers, us staring across our house at each other, to our mother saying
that word fish, we each of us boys nod with our heads yes. That sounds
good to us, us brothers say. Outside, we go with these two other boys
out to the back of our back yard, to show them what our mother meant to
say when she said that word fish. Fish? What kind of fish? is what these
brothers ask us. Our fish, is what we tell them, and we lift our hands
up to get these boys to see our back yard telephone pole that is studded
with the hammered in heads of fish. We had a river once, one of these
boys says to this, his head still tilted up. Our river, it was a real
good river for catching fish. Our river is the muddiest river ever made,
is what us brothers tell these boys. So, what are you gonna do? is the
thing that these brothers want to know. How, we hear these brothers saying
to us, are you gonna get them to stay? We look at these brothers. We look
at them the way that we look at our fish. After a while, when we are done
looking at these two brothers, us brothers, we give each other this same
sort of a look. Brother's the brother of us who walks away from this look.
He is going, only I know, to get what we need to get us to stay. I am
the one of us brothers who stays where I am standing. I am facing into
the faces of the other two brothers. I tell them to stand right here,
with your backs backed against the pole, your faces facing the river.
We'll show you the river, I tell them, just as soon as I get back. I go
to where Brother is standing, with a hammer dangling from each one of
his hands. When we get back, these other brothers, they are right where
we left them, right where we told them to stay, with their backs and boot
heels backed up against our fish headed pole. Good, brothers, is what
us brothers say to these boys. Now give us your hands, we tell them. These
brothers do what we say. We are brothers, after all; these boys are more
than just boys. Now this might sting, we tell them, and we take each of
these brothers each by his hand and we hold them up to the pole's wood.
Both of these brothers take the nail to their hand. Like a brother. They
don't wince, or flinch with their bodies, or make with their mouths the
sounds of a brother crying out. Good, brothers, we say this to them again.
We are both of us brothers both of us getting ready to hammer a second
nail into these other brothers' other hands when our mothers and our fathers,
all four of them, step out into the back of our back yard. Sons, our fathers
call us out. All four of us boys, all of us brothers, we turn back our
heads toward the sound of our fathers. It's time to come home, we hear
our mothers say. Us boys, brothers, turn back to face each other. Up above
us, in this sky above the river, in this sky over the mill, the moon,
it is just now beginning to rise and shine. In the light of this light,
us brothers, we raise back our hammers. We line up those rusted nails.
Good, Brother previously
appeared in Black Warrior Review (and
was reprinted in 5t10 along with a sheaf of other markus tracts,
which you should go to immediately)